Contractual Interpretation Attracts Deference: Heritage Capital Corp v Equitable Trust Co, 2016 SCC 19

Lougheed Building Calgary

The Supreme Court of Canada recently confirmed that considerable deference is due to trial judges in the context of contractual interpretation.

This case centres on the Lougheed Building, a downtown landmark familiar to many Calgarians. In 2004, it was designated a “Municipal Historic Resource” under the Historical Resources Act, R.S.A. 2000, c. H-9 (“HRA”). The owner at the time agreed to refurbish the building in exchange for 15 annual incentive payments from the City of Calgary. The agreement was registered by caveat on title to the land pursuant to the HRA. The building was subsequently sold in a judicial sale.

A dispute arose between the present owner of the building and a creditor of the former owner regarding questions of both statutory and contractual interpretation, as follows:

  • whether the incentive payments constituted a positive covenant running with the land by virtue of the HRA;
  • whether they were sold in the judicial sale of the building; and
  • the present-day effect of a number of agreements assigning an interest in the incentive payments.

The Supreme Court agreed with the master in chambers that the incentive payments did not run with the land and were not sold as an asset in the judicial sale of the property.

In reaching this decision, the Supreme Court explicitly confirmed that its earlier statement on contractual interpretation in Creston Moly Corp v Sattva Capital Corp, 2014 SCC 53 [Sattva] applies to all appellate review, not just review of arbitral decisions. Sattva established that contractual interpretation involves a finding of mixed law and fact, and the proper standard of review on appeal is therefore one of palpable and overriding error. The only exception is when there is an “extricable question of law”, such as “the application of an incorrect principle, the failure to consider a required element of a legal test, or the failure to consider a relevant factor” – the standard is then correctness. The policy reasons behind this deferential standard reflect the recent emphasis on judicial efficiency seen in cases such as Hyrniak v Mauldin, 2014 SCC 7: “deference to fact-finders furthers the goals of limiting the number, length and cost of appeals, and of promoting the autonomy and integrity of trial proceedings.”

This case is also notable for the unanimous Court’s clear statement that statutory exceptions to common law rules should be narrowly construed. The Court found that the provisions of the HRA did not entirely displace the common law rule that positive covenants cannot run with land. In so finding, the Court stated that “the legislature is assumed not to have intended to change the common law unless it has done so clearly and unambiguously.”